This impressive likeness by the Neoclassical painter Gérard, a major European portraitist during the Napoleonic era, is a bust-length version of the official full-length portrait of the man who had become Emperor of the French. The full-length version had been commissioned in 1804 for Talleyrand, Grand Chamberlain of the Imperial Household and Minister of Foreign Affairs. It is now lost, but there are a great number of replicas of it, made in Gérard’s studio to serve as gifts for Imperial dignitaries, ambassadors, and foreign royalty.
Depicted by artists time and time again, Napoleon particularly appreciated the picture Gérard painted. In it can be seen the full Imperial regalia—the grand habillement—worn by the Emperor at his coronation ceremony on December 2, 1804: the heavy mantle of gold-embroidered velvet and ermine over a white satin tunic, gold laurel leaf crown, chain of the Legion of Honour, as well as the Imperial insignia. The highly codified composition makes effective use of the customary representations of pre-Revolutionary French monarchs, while at the same time lends the Emperor an expression, gaze and bearing worthy of the ancient heroes in the history paintings of the school of David, of whom Gérard had been one of the best pupils.
This bust-length version did not allow all the objects and symbols in the full-length version to be shown. The ornamental carving of the frame therefore serves to bring out the Imperial emblems that are not visible: the sceptre’s eagle and the mantle’s bees, as well as the oval back of the throne, whose decoration is repeated in the densely twisted wreath of laurel leaves on its upper part. It is possible that this portrait is the copy Vivant Denon, Napoleon’s artistic advisor and director of the Musée Napoléon (the Louvre), ordered from Gérard in 1808 to serve as a model—or what is referred to as a “cartoon”—for the weavers at the Gobelins manufactory to follow in rendering the Emperor’s image in tapestry.